Favorite Albums: Synchronicity

R-367750-1504307656-3893.jpeg

I’ve been hearing a few Police songs on Sirius 1st Wave lately, and it got me thinking: I haven’t listened to their last album Synchronicity in a LONG time. It occurred to me that this was one of the early non-Beatles albums that I connected with from start to finish in the early 80s. [I’d say Rush’s Moving Pictures and Thomas Dolby’s The Golden Age of Wireless are two others from this era…I’d listened to full albums all the time, but very few of them contained a full album’s worth of tracks I completely loved.  That would change within a year or so.]

I remember Synchronicity coming out as there was an amazingly detailed push by the label, A&M, on MTV, including multiple versions of the album cover, as well as a four-minute long teaser that was played on the music channel:

Having become a somewhat passive fan of the band on the previous album (1981’s Ghost in the Machine and the many hits that got airplay on rock radio, I loved what I was hearing. And when it was released in June of 1983, one of my sisters bought it and I damn near wore it out playing it. I’d dubbed a copy of it for my own listening until I finally found a used vinyl copy a year or so later.

Of course everyone knows the lead-off single, “Every Breath You Take”, which still gets an amazing amount of airplay over thirty years later. I was more a fan of its b-side, “Murder By Numbers”, which was treated as a bonus track on the cassette and CD. I was also a fan of the second single, “Wrapped Around Your Finger”. It’s not often you hear a song that uses the phrase “trapped between the Scylla and Charibdys”. Nerdy stuff indeed.

But what I found myself really enjoying was the strange mix of album cuts, from the jazzy “Miss Gradenko”…

to the new wave weirdness of “Mother”…

…to the jittery opener “Synchronicity I”.

I was only twelve when it came out, but budding writer in me really liked the idea that the album was all about different kinds of philosophies, both religious and profane, and how often they were linked in one way or another. Sting’s uber-intellectual lyrics were tempered by some brilliant melodies that seemed to transcend anything they’d recorded before.

Of course, it was also their last album together before they broke up (acrimoniously due to clashing egos, of course), so they certainly went out with a bang. Each member went on to vastly different solo careers and though they’ve reconvened a few times for one reason or another, they’ve never released anything new since.

Out of all the Police albums I listen to, Synchronicity gets the most plays by far.  It’s the tightest, the wildest, and the most interesting in my opinion.  The others tend to have weak spots that lose my attention, but this one I’ll still listen to from start to finish.

 

One Epic Release Day, 30 Years Ago

It’s not often that we put importance on an album release date.  When it is, it’s usually for a single album that’s considered a historical artifact, like 2 June 1967 with Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, or 9 March 1987 with U2’s The Joshua Tree.

But on 28/29 September 1987, we were treated with not one but four excellent albums that many consider a vital part of the 80s alternative rock movement.

First, we had a newbie:  Pixies’ debut EP on 4AD, Come On Pilgrim.

We all know the story behind the band by now…two UMass Amherst students (Frank Black and Joey Santiago) start up a noisy band and move to Boston; a smartass ad in the local paper pulls in exactly one audition, one Kim Deal; a friend of a friend, David Lovering, is chosen as drummer. Their off-kilter mix of punk, surf, folk and who knows what else is both frightening and intriguing. Ivo Watts-Russell is convinced signing them to his label is a bizarre move, and yet…

I remember hearing “Vamos” on WAMH probably around the same time their “Gigantic” single had come out (about six months after this EP) and thinking, what the hell is this…? By that time I was more into moody college rock, but this was something so leftfield yet so fascinating that I had to follow up. Of course, they were a local band by my standards, so I definitely had to check them out.

Next, we had a band on its way up, not quite there yet but already given a huge following: The Red Hot Chili Peppers, with their third album The Uplift Mofo Party Plan.

They’d been around since 1984 with the delightfully weird but funky first album, but their follow-up, 1985’s Freaky Styley, was a bit too weird for a lot of people. This third album was a return to their rock-funk sound and became a favorite. Tragically, their guitarist Hillel Slovak would die of a heroin overdose after this album’s tour. His death would deeply affect the rest of the band, especially singer Anthony Keidis, and their next album, Mothers Milk, would reflect that darker edge. Still…that album would clear their way even more (especially with their fantastic cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”), and a few years after that their popularity would peak with 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik.

 

Next, we had a band that had already reached significant heights with their distinctive sampling and synth-heavy sound, combined with curious lyrics (often about sex, emotional pain, and the darker side of love) and fascinating melodies. Depeche Mode had no way to go but up. Their album Music for the Masses would take their sound even further than before: louder, brasher, stronger.

“Never Let Me Down”, was the second single, released a month before the album (the first single, “Strangelove”, dropped a full five months previous, the usual habit for DM releases), and its in-your-face volume intrigued many fans. The rest of the album delivered just as much punch, to the delight of many, even as its lyrics seemed to be darker and more personal than ever. A little over two years later they’d return with their absolute best album, Violator.

 

And lastly, a band on its way out. It’s the story of too many bands; two front men with strong egos and opinions, writing absolutely stunning, gorgeously played music and proudly singing heart-on-sleeve lyrics that say exactly how you feel, splitting up in the most acrimonious way possible. The Smiths’ Strangeways, Here We Come was their last gasp, their Abbey Road, containing some of the strongest songs they’d written…and by the time it hit the shops, the band was already in the past tense.

The Smiths was the band for the wallflower, the weirdo, the proud outcast.  Morrissey’s poetic missives perfectly balanced Johnny Marr’s amazing guitar work, and in the short four-plus years they’d been together, they’d given teenagers a hell of a strong and massive soundtrack to their lives.  Though their work on Strangeways had been enjoyable, just like always, the clashing of egos caused the band to fall apart.  Both Morrissey and Marr have moved on from it all, now playing Smiths songs in their live sets, have even talked with one another over the years, but life has gone on.

*

Of course, there were other album releases that day — Yes’ Big Generator, Wet Wet Wet’s Popped In Souled Out, The Art of Noise’s In No Sense? Nonsense!, and Boston locals O-Positive with their Cloud Factory EP, for starters — but those four albums had to be the most important.  They were by four bands either on their way up or their way down, all four bands that could be considered integral to the growing alternative rock scene of the time.

WIS: Unexpected inspiration

The other day while reading Martin Aston’s book about the 4AD label, I came across a single sentence:

By 1985, American college radio had gathered momentum alongside the spurt in independent record labels, with the likes of [Clan of Xymox’s] “A Day” striking radio programmers as adventurous and commercial, and a modern, gleaming alternative to the guitar-centric homegrown scene spearheaded by bands such as REM, Sonic Youth and Hüsker Dü.

To be honest, I hadn’t been thinking of my Walk in Silence project lately, partly because I’d put it aside some time ago.  I didn’t trunk it, I just put it aside so I could focus on the Trilogy Edit and newer fiction.  I’d also gone through my projected timeline last summer on a personal level, if only to purge it from my writing brain for a while.

That personal version really wasn’t the original idea that I’d had.  I was thinking more along the lines of a chronological book about college rock.  The releases bracketing the story would be The Smiths’ third single, “What Difference Does It Make” (January 1984) and Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine (October 1989).

I could never quite figure out a way to solidify my idea that that was the golden era of college rock, before it became much more mainstream in 1991 with Nirvana and everyone else.  Until that one sentence.  It made sense to me, though…1984-85 was about the time that a lot of independent distributors and labels in the US, such as Relativity and Caroline, started licensing British bands that had only been available on expensive imports.  [Only Sire had any sizeable share in that field as a major label, having signed the Smiths, Depeche Mode, and others.]

So it occurs to me that perhaps it’s time for me to resurrect the Walk in Silence project as it was originally intended, focusing on the sounds of college rock in the mid to late 80s.  Maybe without so much of the personal added to it this time out.

Of course, I already have a few writing projects on tap as it is, so I’ll have to figure out how the hell to fit this in.  Heh.

Favorite Albums: Lonely Is an Eyesore

R-260839-1340652556-7447

CAD703, 4AD Records

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Martin Aston’s giant tome Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD, and already I’m revisiting a lot of my collection from that label, many of which I haven’t listened to in ages, including this one.

Lonely Is an Eyesore is another album that’s turning thirty this year, originally released 15 June 1987.  It’s a stellar mix that should be in the collection of anyone who listens to classic alternative rock.  I’d heard of this import via 120 Minutes, and knew the only places I’d be able to find it would either be Al Bum’s in Amherst or Main Street Music in Northampton.  I also knew I’d have to buy the cassette, considering I knew it would be part of my late-night headphone listening.

The album was produced and conceived by label head Ivo Watts-Russell as a multi-format release, provided with its own music video, which I believe was either directed or produced (or both) by Vaughan Oliver from the label’s art collective, 23 Envelope.  [As an aside, these videos partly influenced my decision to attend Emerson to study film.  A lot of my shooting assignments look very similar in style and composition to the images you see in these videos.  Granted, I did not become a filmmaker, but I did use these visual and aural ideas in my future writing.]

 

Side One starts off with the quirky, sample-heavy “Hot Doggie” by Colourbox, an oddball electronic group more known as being two fifths of MARRS (the band behind the 1987 surprise hit “Pump Up the Volume”). It’s a wonderful opening track, maybe a bit silly, but that was part of Colourbox’s charm: they were like listening to a Big Audio Dynamite clone that played a lot of soul music with just a hint of moody ambience.

Following up is This Mortal Coil, a loose label-wide collective put together by Watts-Russell to record unique covers of his favorite 70s folk songs as well as haunting originals. By this time they’d released two stellar albums, 1984’s It’ll End in Tears and 1986’s Filigree & Shadow, both which I highly suggest. “Acid, Bitter and Sad” is a bit scattered as a track, but its multi-part construction is actually quite similar to the feel of their albums as a whole; the different sections take you on a specific journey, leading you to the next section and sometimes cutting short and leaving you floating in midair.

The Wolfgang Press was one of 4AD’s earlier post-punk band signings (various members were in previous 4AD bands Mass and Rema-Rema) with a deconstructive, sometimes brutalist sound similar to The Birthday Party. “Cut the Tree” is one of their quieter songs but retains their trademark intensity.

Next up is Throwing Muses, then a recent signing (their self-titled debut had been released a year earlier) and one of their first non-UK bands. The Muses, like their labelmates Pixies, were from New England and frequently played the Boston club scene. “Fish” is a very good example of what an early Muses track sounds like: tight and tense, unsure of which direction it’s going in, yet somehow still catchy and amazing. Kristin Hersh’s lyrics are sometimes confrontational and frequently obscure (the album title comes from this song), but the emotions behind them were never hidden.

Side One ends with the first of two amazing tracks from Australian/UK/European band Dead Can Dance. “Frontier” (a demo of a track from their debut album) amazes on multiple levels, from Lisa Gerrard’s soaring vocals to Brendan Perry’s haunting counterpoint drone-hum to the hypnotic oil barrel percussion.

Side Two starts with the always lovely Cocteau Twins with “Crushed”, a gorgeous and uplifting track that features all the CT staples: Robin Guthrie’s chiming effects-laden guitar work, Simon Raymonde’s melodic bass, and Elizabeth Fraser’s unconventional singing style. If you love this track, you will most definitely love the rest of their work.

Following up is semi-instrumentalist band Dif Juz* with one of my favorite songs of the late 80s, “No Motion”. I’ve always used this song as a benchmark that I would love to hit in my own music playing and writing, though I highly doubt I’ll ever reach it.  It’s one of the first examples of the experimental post-rock we hear nowadays from bands such as Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor.  Their discography is criminally small but well worth checking out.

* – As an aside, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who knew how to correctly pronounce this band’s name. In my head it’s always been /diff jooz/, and there’s a fan theory that the j is silent it should sound like the word ‘diffuse’, but apparently according to Cocteau Twins’ Simon Raymonde, it is indeed /diff juzz/.

Clan of Xymox is one of the original darkwave bands that revel in their goth-like sound, maintaining that dark sound even when their style evolves from dark gloom to bright beauty. “Muscoviet Mosquito” (a much improved re-recording of an early EP track) is unrelenting in its speed and drive, even as singer Ronny Moorings meanders over the top.  They would follow this a few years later with an amazing album called Twist of Shadows that did well even in the US.

Finishing up the album is the second Dead Can Dance track, “The Protagonist, and an extremely good example of their more orchestral-esque works (like 1987’s Within the Realm of a Dying Sun and 1988’s The Serpent’s Egg).  Often DCD’s music isn’t so much about the melody as it is about the mood and the construction of the track; each attack and sustain is deliberate.

 

I believe I bought this cassette in late 1987, maybe early 1988, having heard a few of the tracks on 120 Minutes or on one of the college radio stations (I remember WAMH used to use part of “Frontier” for the background music of one of their PSAs about drug addiction).  I’d heard of most of these bands but sadly had not owned anything from any of them.  However, within a year I’d own most of the Cocteau Twins’ and Clan of Xymox’s discographies, a few of the Dead Can Dance albums (Within the Realm is still my favorite of theirs), and The Wolfgang Press’s 1992 album Queer would be one of my top favorite albums of that year.  A few years back Colourbox released a box set of their entire recorded output, which I of course picked up.  And every now and again I’ll pull this album back out and give it another listen.  I’d be a long-time fan of 4AD mostly because of this album, even as it evolved and changed their signature sounds over the last few decades.

Again — I highly suggest adding Lonely Is an Eyesore to your collection.

Finest Worksongs: REM

Thirty years ago this month, REM released their album Document.  It’s the one that contains their two hits that still get consistent plays on the radio to this day (one of them for somewhat trollish reasons, I’m guessing!), “The One I Love” and “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)”.  It’s also the first REM album I actually bought, if you can believe that.

Of course, I’d known REM quite early on.  I remember MTV playing “Radio Free Europe” in its early days.  I remember “So. Central Rain” and “Pretty Persuasion” getting a lot of airplay on WAAF and WAQY.  Even “Driver 8” and “Can’t Get There from Here” got minor play.  And “Fall On Me” was a big college radio hit as well as a staple on the early days of 120 Minutes.

Document was, to date, their most commercial sounding album, and the last for the indie label IRS Records.  They’d release one final record, the singles/rarities album Eponymous, before signing to Warner Bros Records and releasing Green in late 1988.

Interestingly, Document is also the first place I’d heard a Wire song, “Strange”, which was from that band’s seminal Pink Flag album.  REM’s Michael Stipe was one of many musicians in the punk and college rock genre that sang the praises of Wire.  By the end of 1989, I’d have nearly all the Wire albums to date in my own collection, declaring them one of my top five favorite bands.  In early 1989 I and a few of my friends went to see REM at the Worcester Centrum, with a relatively new folk duo called Indigo Girls as the opener.  Suffice it to say, I also became a huge fan of that band.

For a short time in the late 80s, I was obsessed by REM.  I was definitely a fan of their early years, especially once I dubbed my the first four albums from my friends.  I was a mad fan of Green as well — still am, to be honest — even while others complained that they’d sold out and become ‘rockstars’.  They definitely epitomized that Athens GA sound that’s not quite country, not quite folk, not quite rock, but everything in between.  And not a day would go by where I wouldn’t hear one of their songs on a college radio station.

I was a passing fan of 1991’s Out of Time, but by then their sound had evolved to a point where the songs didn’t quite gel with me anymore.  I’d still follow them and pick up their albums, but after 1992’s Automatic for the People I was more of a song fan than an album fan of theirs.  It wasn’t until their last few albums, 2008’s Accelerate and 2011’s Collapse into Now that I became an album fan again.

I do come back to them occasionally, especially if they’re played on the radio or if I see one of the band members surfacing here and there.  [Michael Stipe, now wearing a full-on white Jethro beard, pops up in the news now and again, and Mike Mills is frequently spotted on Twitter.]   They’re part of a fond memory of that era of late 80s college rock and close friendship for me, but they’re also amazing musicians as well.

Retro: 1981

A while back I was visiting a music blog I enjoy but haven’t checked out in some time called Musicophilia.  Sometime in April they had an entry regarding an incredibly huge mix they’d built sometime last decade (and recently updated to twice its original size!), the entire collection containing post-punk songs from 1981.

That’s one hell of a fantastic mix, even by my standards.  I’ve been listening to it off and on, and the first thing that hits me is how similar a lot of this stuff is to the indie music out there now.  It’s pure college rock in a sense — the non-commercial stuff you’d hear on your favorite college radio station back in the day, even further afield than the Big Names we all know and remember now.  You may think of Depeche Mode and the Cure and The Replacements and so on, and those bands definitely have their own spot in this mix, but you’ll also see tracks from Crispy Ambulance, The Swimming Pool Qs, Pere Ubu, Flux of Pink Indians, and so on.  Bands you know of and most likely don’t have in your collection, but you remember that station playing those tracks late at night while doing your homework.

To be honest, it kind of makes me think that I’m not even close to doing justice to my own retrospective mixes or delving deep enough into the sounds of the past.  Who knows, maybe I’ll do one of my own versions of this megamix one of these days.

[I’m not sure if the mix is still available, but go ahead and follow Musicophilia anyway, they do post some great streaming mixes as well that’ll really open your ears to some deep cuts and forgotten gems.  [And I do mean forgotten — not the ‘oh yeah, that Cure single I used to hear all the time in 1992 and they’re now playing again for a brief time’.  I’m talking tunes I haven’t heard since maybe 1987 or so.]